We’ve had our first day of the Moving Naturalism Forward meeting, and although it was grueling (listening to smart people say things that are sometimes obscure is hard), it was also enlightening. The two main things I have learned are these:
- Things—even simple things like the definition of “naturalism”, the subject of our meeting—aren’t as simple as they seem
- We’re not going to agree on anything.
Sadly, three of our five participants couldn’t make it because of personal or family illness, and they’re all women (Lisa Randall, Hilary Bok, and Patricia Churchland), so the sex ratio has become unbalanced, but not deliberately so.
Sean Carroll, who deserves kudos for setting up the whole thing (as well as Nick Pritzer, who helped fund it), has been a great moderator, keeping things on track but also inserting judicious remarks to clarify matters and adding his own take on the issues, issues which, yesterday, were “what is real?”, “are there emergent properties?”, and “what can we say about complexity?”
I have just a few interim notes; others might disagree on these because they’re based on my personal interpretation of what was said. And they’re just extracts from a very long conversation. I just saw that Massimo Pigliucci (who was live-blogging the meetings for his site Rationally Speaking) has a long summary of yesterday’s activities and you should read his post for a fuller account).
First, it’s strange that, given our task of moving naturalism forward, we can’t agree on what naturalism is. Alex Rosenberg defined it as “all that there is in the universe are bosons and fermions” (others disagreed, saying that “all there is are quantum fields”), while Sean defined it as “the natural world is all there is”. Sean’s definition comes close to mine except I think that that he excludes the “supernatural” a priori (I think), while I entertain the possibility that what we call “supernatural” might exist, and could in principle be addressed with the tools of science. (ESP, telekinesis, and even God). As I’ve always said, the distinction between the “natural” and “supernatural” is a tenuous one.
Dan and Richard disagreed on the use of the term “design” in evolution. Dan says it’s useful, while Richard doesn’t like its supernatural connotations and prefers to use the term “designoid”, indicating the absence of a teleological force behind biological adaptations. I agree with Richard on this one, though I prefer the simple term “adaptations.” I also worry that using the word “design” in nature, even as biological shorthand, could give unwitting credibility to theists.
Steve Weinberg, who is awesomely eloquent and smart, maintained that “everything is real,” although he used the definition of real in a very expanded way (for instance, he said that “Santa Claus and God are real”). Alex Rosenberg, the most hard-core reductionist among us, denies that anything is real except fermions and bosons: he even maintained that “meaning is not real” (read his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality, to see why), something I’m pondering at the moment. (BTW, you should read his book; it’s very provocative and though you might disagree, it will make you think).
Some of the most vigorous (and to me, most interesting) discussion was about whether higher-level phenomena are compatible with (or “entailed by”, as Weinberg put it) lower-level phenomena. That is, is everything entailed by the fundamental laws and particles of physics. Weinberg said “yes,” and I agree with him. The big opponent of this view was Massimo himself, who claims that emergent properties (he used phase transitions in physics) may be sui generis and not at all entailed by physical laws.
Weinberg went after Massimo, saying in effect that he didn’t understand phase transitions and they are certainly entailed by lower-level physical phenomena. Massimo replied that there is no “knockdown” argument that higher level phenomena are entailed by lower level one. Weinberg and I made the point that the whole history of physics—which continually shows that higher-level phenomena can be derived from “lower level” ones (i.e. thermodynamics from quantum mechanics) justifies the reductionist program. (By that I mean simply entailment, not that we can predict higher-level phenomena from the behavior of particles or that we shouldn’t analyze phenomena like evolution or human society in terms of particle physics). Moreover, it has never been shown that a higher-level phenomenon isn’t in principle derivable from lower level ones.
We all agree, however, that “higher-level” phenomena like evolution must often be analyzed on their own terms and that we shouldn’t try to reduce them to particle physics or the like. That much seems obvious. But at bottom we all (with the exception of Massimo) seem to agree that everything is entailed by the laws of physics.
The discussion of complexity, introduced by Simon DeDeo and much discussed by Janna Levin, was way over my head. I found some consolation in the fact that Dennett, too, announced that he didn’t understand what was being said!
At any rate, see Massimo’s post for a more thorough report.
Today we are talking about morality (introduced by Steven Weinberg), consciousness, and my own pet project, free will, which Owen Flanagan described yesterday as “the black hole of philosophy.”. I am giving a brief Powerpoint presentation of the controversy, emphasizing of course my own stand of incompatibilism (i.e., free will is incompatible with physicalism and the laws of physics). I know I will face strong opposition by Dennett, a formidable arguer, and so I’m a bit nervous. I’m sure Alex Rosenberg will be on my side, and equally sure that Steve Weinberg (like Dennett, a “compatibilist”) won’t. I’m equally sure that it will be a lively discussion!